The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 411: Days of Thumper

The HMS Thumper, in all of her supposed glory

At one time -- before the Norman Conquest, perhaps -- the Thumper might have been a state-of-the-art warship. That time had come and gone before she left the ways. Her quaint three-pounders could hurl their insignificant projectiles almost far enough to threaten a minor adversary. Her armor -- thin sheets of mild steel -- was sufficient to stop some thrown rocks, provided these weren't thrown too hard. Her two ancient triple-expansion engines could drive her faster than a fishing boat, provided they were both in good order.

This combination of armament, protection, and machinery ensured that the gunboat would be unable to outrun anything she could outfight, and unable to outfight anything she couldn't outrun. Fortunately, combat didn't seem to be on the agenda today. The most threatening thing in sight as she pulled up to the wharf at Samarai Island was a team of nattily-clad tennis players filing aboard an island schooner for a trip to some sporting event.

Lieutenant Peters glanced at them and nodded. "How shall we go about this investigation?" he asked Fenwick.

Questions of this sort put Fenwick in awkward position. As a commissioned officer, Peters outranked him, but he was in charge of the mission. Fortunately, the lieutenant was a good-natured individual -- a crusty old salt, but without the age, crust, or salt -- who seemed to appreciate the humor of the situation.

"We want to make inquiries about Miss Kim without revealing our origin or mission," Fenwick replied. "To this end, I shall continue my masquerade as a fisheries inspector."

"Dinki di!" Peters said cheerfully. "You'll need a false name so that no one connects you with the Cairns Royal Air Station. It will have to be something ordinary and forgettable. Have you given the matter any thought?"

Fenwick nodded. "I have just the thing."

Samarai Island lay at the mouth of Milne Bay. Once it had been the largest port in British New Guinea -- an important stopping point for vessels traveling between Australia or the South Pacific and the Dutch East Indies, Philippines, and China -- but changes in trade routes, improvements in navigation, and a desire to do things the hard way had led skippers to bypass the place on the way to Port Moresby and Darwin. A few half-empty administration buildings and a row of the ubiquitous copra warehouses were the only remnants of the town's former glory.

Fenwick examined the former until he'd located Samarai Island's shipping office. A group of Japanese tourists stood nearby, pointing at the sign and chuckling to each other. Fenwick nodded to them and eased open the door, taking care not to knock it off its hinges.

Inside, a clerk was paging through a tennis magazine. "G'day, mate!" said the man. "Haven't see you before. What's yer nomiker?"

"The name is Stead: John Stead," said Fenwick. "I'm a fisheries inspector."

"Good on ya!" said the clerk. "You've come to the right place! Plenty of fish here to inspect! You'll be wanting to see our shipping records?"

"If you'd be so kind."

The clerk led Fenwick into a back office where filing cabinets gathered dust next to some advertising posters for women's swimwear. The signalman gestured at these as if they'd reminded him of something. "Before I forget," he told his host. "Have you happened to encounter a colleague of mine -- a young Asian woman with a motorcycle?"

For some reason, the clerk seemed intrigued by this prospect. "Was she inspecting fish too?"

"Yes," Fenwick replied, for lack of anything better to say. "She's quite good at it."

The clerk shook his head ruefully. "Haven't seen her. But I'll keep my eyes open!"

The shipping records were in hopeless disarray. After he'd assured himself they were useless, Fenwick set off to learn what he could on the waterfront. His first stop was the shipping chandlery -- an ancient shop that could plausibly have provided rigging supplies to Noah. The proprietor was a grizzled old man who eyed Fenwick as if the signalman had come to announce another Flood.

"I watched you come ashore," he asked suspiciously. "Who are you and what do you want?"

Fenwick smiled and produced the identification he'd forged on the way to New Guinea. "My name is Stead," he said politely. "I'm a fisheries inspector."

The shopkeeper looked him up and down. "You're sure you aren't some agent from Naval Intelligence conducting some secret investigation?"

"No, I'm just here to verify compliance with fishing regulations."

"You're quite sure about that? You did arrive on a gunboat."

Fenwick affected a shrug. "The Royal Navy takes fish very seriously. We're on the trail of a notorious smuggler. This would a young Asian woman with a motorcycle. Have you seen anyone who might fit this description?"

The shopkeeper thought this over. "No. The only motorcyclist I've seen recently was some tall English fellow with a sun tan."

The next obvious source of information was the buyer for the village's copra concern. Fenwick found him in a warehouse, surrounded by crates of dried coconut meat, making entries in a ledger. The man seemed grateful for an interruption.

"My name is John Stead," Fenwick told him. "I'm a fisheries investigator. Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?"

The buyer shook his head in wonder. "Another fisheries inspector! We've seen a lot of you chappies recently. You wouldn't happen to be one of those fish cultists?"

"Fish cultists?" asked Fenwick.

"Aye," said the man. "They're always hopping about, uttering eldritch chants, making sacrifices to some old prehuman fish god. No one likes them."

"No, I'm an Anglican," Fenwick assured his host. "Who was this previous inspector? Would this have happened to be a young Asian woman with a motorcycle?"

The man shook his head. "No, it was some toff who showed up a week or two ago on a very crook-looking steamship."

Fenwick's ears perked up. "Could you describe this vessel?"

"It was about as long as that gunboat over there, but much lower, with deck guns mounted fore and aft. I reckon it was some new class of river patrol boat."

By the end of the day, Fenwick had learned more than he ever wanted to know about copra, tennis, river gunboats, and ancient gods who filtered down from the stars before the dawn of time, slept beneath the waves, and would rise again when the stars were right to sweep the Earth clean of humanity. He'd almost given up on finding any information about Miss Kim when he paused to question an old Australian dockworker.

"A grouse young Asian sheila wearing a tight leather riding outfit travelling with a motorbike?" the man said brightly. "Strewth! Couldn't miss that bike! It was a new GT Norge, with the 500cc horizontal single! Arcangeli raced one at the Isle of Man! They say it can..."

"Could you tell me when she was here?" Fenwick interrupted hastily, to head off what threatened to be a lengthy digression.

The dockworker seemed disappointed by his guest's priorities. "She showed up a week or two ago and left a few days before that fisheries inspector arrived."

"Do you have any idea what vessel she was embarked upon?"

It took the Aussie a moment to translate the King's English into his quaint native tongue. "Dinki di," he replied. "It was some old freighter named the Viking Girl II."

Next week: Adventures in Resupply...

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